“It is shocking to hear that we are going to hear 33 names, one of them a child,” said Judith Bither, the reverend of the Methodist church. “Yes, we have shelters, but something else needs to be done.”
According to Reno Police Officer and activist for the homeless Patrick O’Bryan, annual homeless deaths in the Reno/Sparks area are usually about 25, meaning about a 24 percent increase in 2009.
In 2007, a survey revealed that 923 people in Reno were staying in emergency, transitional or permanent house with an additional 2,916 individuals staying in weekly motels. The numbers were reassessed in January by the Reno Area Alliance for the Homeless when they partnered with local law enforcement to count the area homeless. Those numbers were not available as of press time Tuesday.
However, on Monday, the numbers took a back seat to a cold reality.
“We are remembering that people die without someone to claim the body or mourn over the remains,” Bither said.
One homeless death caught the attention of locals in July when Eric Burkhart of Reno was found beaten to death in a homeless encampment in downtown Reno. His alleged murderer, 16-year old James Pineda, is facing a May 17 trial date.
The increase in homeless deaths was also mirrored in the area’s icy sub-zero conditions. Dec. 9 brought the coldest day in northern Nevada since 1972 with low temperatures reaching -13 degrees.
As Methodist members and friends of area homeless gathered inside the warm church Monday, they also reflected on policy decisions made by local government leaders.
State Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie spoke at the service in favor of expanding transitional housing and supporting local initiatives such as Project Restart, Step One housing and Section 8 Housing through the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“These programs need our help, especially in these troubled economic times,” Leslie said from the pulpit.
Bither’s statements from the pulpit brought the issue of homelessness closer to home.
“We would all rather look the other way … be warm with our family and friends. Perhaps you knew one of these people. Perhaps you are afraid it may be you next.”